Today it seems fair to assert that the significance of “Berberness” lies somewhere between the all-encompassing and the nonexistent. Berber language –or in the instance I examine here, the variety of it known as Tashelhit—matters in some ways to most everybody who speaks it, and sometimes it matters in ways might be considered political. I would not claim the sort of importance I will outline here for all Berber varieties at all times and places, but I will make the case for it in one place at a particular time. The place is the Agoundis Valley, an out of the way nook of the world less than 100 km south of Marrakech. It sits at 5000 feet above sea level in a steep and forbidding canyon, but is well watered by snowmelt spilling off the great Ouanoukrim Massif around Jebel Toubkal, the highest mountain in North Africa. The time I focus upon is the late 1990s. There is no cultural activism or fundamentalist Islam. The people concern themselves mostly with the complicated task of growing enough barley and maize to keep themselves alive, with tending goats and cows, and with harvesting the almonds and walnuts that are their main source of income. The way that Berber language operates politically in the Agoundis may be idiosyncratic in some ways, but it cannot be entirely so. The Berber speaking regions of all of North Africa are experiencing many of the same changes as the Agoundis, and the associated relevance of language seems likely to bear comparison.
by David Crawford